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The Backlog of Descriptions of Chilean Life + Skydiving Is the Easy Part

This is a double-post and hence very long. Forgive me; the two parts didn’t seem complete without each other. Hopefully I can hold your attention from start to finish.

La Vida Cotidiana; or, The Little Things I Haven’t Mentioned Yet

It sounds easier to write about the smaller, everyday insights of living abroad than it is to write about the big, life-changing moments. But it’s not easier; it’s more difficult. For you, my dear audience who should press the Facebook “like” button at the bottom of this entry when you’re done reading it, I will try my best, a traves de some notable quotes.

“We’re Going to Re-take the Casa Central” (Current Events)

To start off, I have for you an update about a significant building in my host university. Casa Central, Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Valparaiso: Eerily quiet now, I presume, after the police finally received a warrant to enter the building and arrest students occupying it. And worse for wear, I also presume. My Communication and Culture professor says students have gone as far as stealing books from the libraries, a line he draws in spite of his liberal viewpoint. Basically, it looks like I will not be taking classes in that building at any point this semester, even if it is not en toma (occupied).

There is a chance that students will try to occupy it again, too. The student movement has been bigger and has lasted longer than anyone could have imagined. The students involved are determined. They will not be taking bad compromises from the government–not without a fight, at least. The two options, essentially: free and high-quality education for all, or more protests.

Not as current, but still an event: Recently a television crew flew in a Chilean air force jet to the island of San Fernandez off the coast of Chile to report on how the island is doing after the big earthquake and tsunami last year (since the island is one of the places most affected). Unfortunately, the crew did not survive the flight. Tragedy seems to follow the nation of Chile the same way a street dog in Valparaiso tries to follow you home with its sad eyes full of unexpressed love.

Which reminds me. The street dogs (of which there are many) in Chile are not dogs that lack owners; they are dogs that are owned by everyone. People feed them. People pet them. They are basically the guard dogs of public spaces, keeping an eye on all us humans, and asking only for a little food and belly rubbing in return.

“It Wasn’t a Real Dictatorship” (Chilean Politics)

If you think U.S. politics are divisive, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

I had a conversation with my host family recently about the Allende-Pinochet transition era (cerca 1983). My host parents lived through both the Allende and the Pinochet regimes. My host mom described the Allende phase as being horrible. (In many ways, it was. Imagine standing in a long line for a little bread even though your pockets are overflowing with bills and coins. Imagine being kicked out of your home for making the mistake of being born into a wealthy family.) But then my host dad interjected with something that just about made my jaw drop: the Pinochet era “wasn’t a real dictatorship.”

Say what!?

I have seen, with my own two eyes, Villa Grimaldi in Santiago, formerly a torture site where Pinochet’s political enemies entered and were often never seen again. I have seen the memorial wall with the names of known victims of the Pinochet military-political regime and blank spaces left open for the names of victims who have yet to be found. Pablo Neruda, who I have read for three months straight (ugh) in my Chilean Poetry class, was exiled for being a socialist. Even when Pinochet formally descended from his seat as President his hand was in Chilean politics well into the 90’s.

Tell me again that Pinochet’s government was not a dictatorship.

I did not say this to my host dad, though. Part of me wishes I had. Another part of me doubts that I would have had the capacity to say it in Spanish while steam was still coming out of my ears.

Hence the divisiveness of Chilean politics: the population is still in recoil from the damage done by the double-whammy of Allende and Pinochet. Chileans have no other way to cope than to divide themselves between the extreme left and the extreme right, as if they were still fighting against Allende or against Pinochet today.

“Obama Is Arab” (Chileans on U.S. Politics)

This quote was relayed to me via another IFSA student and comes from her host mom. (Is October “Talk About Politics With Your Gringa Daughter” Month?) The words speak for themselves: Chileans have strong opinions about U.S. politics, but have a tendency to be under-informed.

There are Chileans with well-supported opinions, however. I was stumped by a Chilean this weekend who asked me, essentially, why–on principal–the U.S. government would bail out the big banks if they were doing so poorly in the first place. I tried to explain that without the help they would fail, and failing would bring the whole economy down. But when you think about it a little too long–about the way economies go up and down all the time anyway, about the way that the bailout didn’t actually help–that justification doesn’t really justify anything.

“What is a Bagel?” (Chilean Cuisine)

Chileans eat bread constantly. They are the number two consumers of bread in the world (you can confirm this with my admittedly less-than-academic source here, if you wish). That does not mean, however, that you can walk down any street in Vina del Mar and stumble upon tortillas, crusty rolls, and bagels within an easy stroll of each other. My host mom didn’t even know what a bagel is until I did my best to explain them to her.

Yes, Chileans eat a lot of bread, but only specific types of bread.

My host family eats a lot of these:

They’re called hallullas and they are dense, meal-like rocks (oh, I mean “rolls”) made out of simple carbs and butter. Some days I hate them. Some days I like them. All days I feel the urge to refuse eating the second of two halves at breakfast. I try not to eat them at lunch and dinner altogether since I have so much food on my own plate to focus on without even considering the bread sitting on a serving plate off to the side.

They feed me so much here it is ridiculous.

With one exception: once isn’t a terribly big meal. Once is great. It’s like British tea time but much, much better. You’ve got your tea, for sure, but you’ve also got your instant coffee (what Chileans drink at home in place of brewed coffee), your hallullas, your avocado, your queso fresco (light, refreshing, almost odorless type of cheese), more bread, jam, crackers, butter… I suppose each family does once differently, but the idea is that it is a meal made of appetizers and snacks to go with your tea or coffee. It often replaces dinner.

Chorrillana, a Valparaiso invention that spread to the rest of Chile because it’s delicious and should be eaten everywhere, can also replace dinner. It might also be the cause of many a clogged artery. Let me explain what this mess of wonderfulness includes. It is stratified by layers of different things. On the bottom are the French fries. In the middle are the fried onions. On top is a carnivore’s heaven: grilled pieces of beef and sausage.

So, tonight: shall it be once, dinner, or chorrillana?

Adventuring in Argentina

La cosa mas peligrosa de paracaidismo es que te guste.

“The most dangerous thing about skydiving is that you might like it.”

–Tandem jump instructor.

So, I finally told my parents from back home–purposefully belatedly–that I spent the past school holiday jumping out of a small plane from over 9,000 feet in the air after learning how to do so in a language not native to me.

My mom seemed to shrug it off, which surprised me. I was expecting to hear a scream that could break windows. My step-dad was proud of me (but not in that macho kind of “oh that’s so cool, high five” kind of way). My sister commented on my awesome new profile picture of me parachuting to the ground with “You really did it!? S#*t!”

I may have worried my host mom sick by talking about the plans with her before leaving for my trip to Mendoza, Argentina (metropolitan population of 848,000, and an approximately 6 hour bus ride away from Vina del Mar). In fact, when I got back, it turns out that she really had gotten sick to her stomach. I felt so guilty for being away from her during that time and having the time of my life while she was suffering, confined to her bed, and at one point, even in the hospital. Bwaaaaaaa :( Don’t worry, she’s back to normal now.

The fact is that I did indeed have the time of my life. The weekend in Mendoza started with a bike tour of the wine-growing region. (Let me tell you, you haven’t tasted real chocolate until you’ve tried pepper-flavored chocolate from an artisanal producer.) We continued our adventure with a buffet dinner in town. I left that dinner weighing 10 pounds more than when I entered. We ran into the bike rental place employee at the restaurant, too, and had ourselves a discussion about gringos in Argentina and how the guy wants to live in the Australian outback.

The next day was the fateful one: skydiving. Yes, a pretty expensive few minutes of excitement; but worth it? You bet! The first step was signing my life away to the Fates and the Lawyers. Then my travel buddies and I learned how to not get hurt while plummeting to the ground at 200 kilometers per hour…in Spanish. And we understood everything perfectly.

(That says two things: 1. My and my friends’ language faculties have improved by leaps and bounds since arriving in Chile; and, 2. As with the Peruvian accent I mentioned in this earlier post, the Argentine accent is… less “specialized” than the Chilean accent. Heck, every accent is less specialized than the Chilean accent. However, it’s really grown on me. The only way I can say gracias now is like a Chilean. Yeah, OK, fine, more like a gringa trying to be Chilean.)

We climbed the sky in a tiny plane that felt like it could have been blown off its trajectory by a strong enough gust of wind. Luckily, it didn’t. Up in the sky the view was spectacular. It was almost peaceful.

And then they opened the door. That’s when it got real.

And then my plane buddy wasn’t sitting in the plane anymore. That’s when it got more real. And then my feet were dangling off the wing of the plane, the only support for them being the ground 9,000 feet below. That was the worst part. And then I was in position for the jump. I felt like I was hanging on that edge of the plane for a year and a half. And then we (tandem jump instructor and I) were spinning in the air–and falling, too, apparently, though it didn’t feel like it.

That free fall liberated me from something. Terrestrially confined body movement, for sure, but something else, too…something I can’t really put my finger on. Something formless and invisible, but real.

And then the parachute was pulled and we gingerly floated like a giant feather toward the earth, which was spread out like a quilt of vineyards and cities and roads below me. The Andes were a big (very big) wrinkle in the quilt to one side, as though someone had been sleeping underneath it and forgot to make the bed after waking up.

And then I was on my feet again, obeying the laws of gravity, with severely impaired hearing. It turns out going 200km per hour without being covered in something like a car can put so much pressure on your ears that they just decide to take a little break from hearing for a while. Don’t worry, they’re fine now.

And then I was being helped out of the harness. And then I decided that I loved the whole thing and I want to do it again.

Yes, tandem jump instructor, I think you were right: I fell victim to the greatest danger of skydiving. Sure, in danger of wanting to blow money on this quite expensive (though cheap compared to the U.S.) experience every time I get the chance. In danger of wanting to try other extreme outdoor activities, I suppose. But mostly, in danger of not having any excuse to do other things that scare me–dancing in public, falling in love, applying for competitive internships. “But, Anjie, you jumped out of a frickin’ plane before!” I have been left defenseless. And that, my friends, is the most dangerous thing that anything can do to anyone.


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